In DepthInfectious Diseases

Amid panic, a chance to learn about MERS

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Science  12 Jun 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6240, pp. 1183-1184
DOI: 10.1126/science.348.6240.1183

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Crowds wearing facemasks on Asian city streets, soaring numbers of cases and deaths, rumors and panic. To anyone who remembers the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, the reports from South Korea last week about another viral disease seemed grimly familiar. But virologists downplay parallels between SARS and the new outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). The South Korean MERS outbreak is the biggest ever outside of Saudi Arabia. Yet the virus doesn't spread as easily as the SARS virus, and it shows no signs of mutating to become more dangerous. Christian Drosten, a virologist at the University of Bonn in Germany, says there is little doubt that South Korea will bring the virus under control. The episode may even have a silver lining: It could aid understanding of MERS, which was discovered only in 2012. In contrast to Saudi Arabia's reticence to let foreign scientists in or share data and samples, South Korea has so far provided regular updates and shared the virus with some outside experts.